Jonathan Lethem talks about how he learned to revel in pop culture references in his work

While he started out thinking he would become a painter, genre-bending American author Jonathan Lethem, 50, eventually learned how to paint with words.

His frequent use of pop culture references in his rich, sprawling novels has become something of a trademark. It was also the subject of his lecture at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday (Nov 8), which itself contained a reference to the cult film and black comedy Dr Strangelove: "Words Are Not Paint: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Cultural References".

Speaking to audience members at the National Museum of Singapore's Gallery Theatre, which was about two-thirds full, he took the circular route by first sketching out his childhood history before plunging into how his beliefs about how writing and art should be created have evolved over the years.

The award-winning Lethem has written nine novels, each very different from the next and brimming with an eclectic blend of detective noir, science fiction, gritty realism and twists of magic. They include The Fortress Of Solitude (2003) and Motherless Brooklyn (1999).

His father is a painter and his late mother an activist, and he had grown up believing that "great art, art you could be proud of, had this purity of intention... it was purged of timely references or petty human materials, in favour of something universal and extraordinary that spoke across boundaries of culture and time", and that things he loved, such as pulp or popular culture, were "stuck in the mire of the everyday, the commercial, the vernacular... It was also very easy for me to feel... that these things were embarrasing, they were problematic."

This changed when he realised he wanted to write a character (for his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn) that was the opposite of the controlled and poised hardboiled detective exemplified by Humphrey Bogart. This fictional detective had Tourette's syndrome, one marked by involuntary verbal and physical tics, a deeply specific condition where the character and his words wanted to connect and make reference to the world around them. Lethem cited Charles Dickens as someone who had "drowned" his work in references to 1800s London, and it was this deluge of specific references that made his writing so emotionally-charged and alive. This led to his next novel, The Fortress Of Solitude, which was "as much a book about failing to understand the cultural surround that you move through every day, as it is about grasping it and mastering it."

He said: "I began to think, it isn't that one needs to know or understand or relate to every name, every specific, every reference on the page. It's that they have to be electrified by the consciousness of the writer into something, animated into a world that the reader can become immersed in, much as we are immersed in our own world without understanding everything we hear around us." This, he felt, especially applied to the very real chaos of modern city life: "We're drowning in a world of cultural references."

During the question and answer session, he said that ultimately, even if future generations do not grasp every reference he makes in his work, "Posterity becomes a fool's errand. I have to write for the present life, for my present readers.

Copywriter Eldon Ooi, 27, lugged at least 10 Lethem books to the lecture for the author to autograph. He enjoyed the talk, saying: "I didn't know anything about his actual early life, and I read The Fortress Of Solitude without understanding that his father was an artist, and all the jazz references as well as pop culture references... It was very illuminating."

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @Corrie

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